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myths of pet nutrition

Mark Billadeau

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Lisa Freeman DVM, PhD (nutrition), DACVN (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition)


A Taste of Tufts: Lisa Freeman


The most recent installment of the Experimental College's weekly lecture series, "A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research," showcased Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. At the lecture in the Granoff Center on March 9, Freeman spoke about her research on the optimal nutrition for pets.Freeman, a "Triple Jumbo," has earned a degree from three separate Tufts campuses: a B.S. from the College of Liberal Arts, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the Cummings School and a Ph.D. from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.


Explaining that she had always wanted to be a veterinarian, Freeman began the lecture by describing how she became fascinated with nutrition, which is her specialty. Her main research focus is on the use of nutrition to prevent and slow the progression of heart disease, and she is able to use her clinical practice at the Cummings School to help develop her research.


"My particular area of interest is nutrition and heart disease. By using nutrition as a component of the therapy for [the patients in Freeman's clinical practice], we can actually help them to improve," Freeman said. "So we use it to help the animals, but we also study this to find what we can feed them and how we can feed them, to get them better more quickly and more effectively."


Freeman's lecture centered on exposing the myths of pet nutrition and educating pet owners on how to select an optimal diet.


"It's a really difficult area for people to deal with because there are so many mixed messages coming out for our own nutrition," she said. "You look in the newspaper, on the Internet, in the magazines, every single day there is something on nutrition, and then usually the next week there is something contradictory."


According to Freeman, nutrition is an incredibly powerful area because it is one thing that pet owners can actually control. The $17 billion pet food industry — and the advertising that goes with it — does not help in debunking the myths.


Freeman emphasized that one pervasive myth in particular — the belief that the pet food industry is not regulated, which exploded after the 2007 pet food recall — is not true. According to Freeman, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) serves two crucial purposes: the AAFCO has pet food regulations that set the standards for individual states, and it also establishes nutrient profiles.


But how is this useful for the average pet owner when it comes time to select food? Freeman expressed her disbelief at the number of options in the grocery or pet store aisles, where each brand aims to convince owners that its food is best for the animal.


"The key is that a pet food label is an advertisement as well, and it has to appeal to us as consumers," Freeman said. "Unfortunately, when I talk to owners, what they base their decision on is the advertisement, not the legal part."


During the lecture, Freeman asked audience members which pieces of information on pet food labels were most important. According to Freeman, the most common answer given is the list of ingredients, but this is yet another myth.


"The … most important thing is the manufacturer," she said. "You would absolutely be shocked at the variability in the quality of different companies."


Freeman explained that at least one full−time, qualified nutritionist, a research and development department, self−operated plants and internal quality control standards are essential for any reliable manufacturer.


"You would be shocked at how many of these pet food companies do not have a nutritionist," Freeman said. "I also don't want them to be spending all of their money on marketing. I want research and development [so they] continue to enhance their own foods, to enhance our knowledge collectively about nutrition."


The second−most important fact on the label, Freeman said, is the nutritional adequacy statement, which reveals three essential pieces of information: whether or not the pet food is complete and balanced, how the company knows that it is complete and balanced and the intended life stage of the food.


"If you're feeding this to your pet, you want it to meet all the nutrient needs for that animal," Freeman said. "The best way to decide that is with feeding trials. AAFCO has regulations, and they make sure that animals fed these foods actually stay healthy on these foods. And finally, the intended life stage — who it's marketed for can be really different from who it meets the requirements for. That one little statement tells you a tremendous amount of information."


Freeman presented images of pet food labels representing various brands, reading the nutritional adequacy statements and testing her audience as to whether these statements were reasonable.


One particular label for cat food that Freeman showed listed flaxseed — which can be metabolized in humans and at low efficiency in dogs, but not at all in cats — as an ingredient. According to Freeman, this is an indication that the company does not know a lot about nutrition.


"They used it for us, because we see flaxseed and think it's great. That is marketing to us," Freeman said. "People get really deceived by the ingredient list. But that's how I use it — to look for red flags that say they don't know very much."


According to Freeman, pet owners make the process more difficult than it needs to be. She advises customers to be skeptical of marketing, as most of the "stuff" on the label is just advertisement and has little to do with quality.


In terms of assessing the health of a pet, body weight and condition are very important, Freeman said. Although there is a body condition "score chart" that can be used when feeling the animal's ribs, Freeman has a new trick that she recommends to avoid assumptions.


"Make a fist and feel your knuckles. If you were feeling your dog or cat's ribs, that's too skinny," she said. "Now flat hand, palm up and feel the base of your fingers. That's overweight. If you make a flat hand, palm down and feel your knuckles … that's just right. That's what it should feel like, with that amount of pressure."


According to Freeman, keeping a pet trim reduces the risk of orthopedic diseases, diabetes and back problems. In one study Freeman cited, dogs that are kept trim lived almost two years longer than dogs that were just a bit overweight.


Freeman drew her lecture to a close by testing the audience on other pet nutrition myths. She revealed that animal by−products are not actually poor quality meats, and that so−called "organic" pet foods do not have to meet specific requirements defined by the AAFCO to be labeled as such. The AAFCO also does not specifically define "human−grade," "premium" and "holistic"; these are purely marketing terms, Freeman said, adding that "natural" is one word that actually has a specific AAFCO definition.


Freeman emphasized that dietary modifications can benefit animals with hip dysplasia, kidney disease, cancer and heart disease. Her hope is that pet owners are careful about trusting advertisements and believing the myths of pet nutrition.


"It's a really important issue because there is so much confusion out there," Freeman said. "[Pet owners] should find out the basics, talk to their veterinarian and be careful about what they read on the Internet. There's good and bad information, and it's often really difficult to discern which is which."

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Nutritional labeling phrases:


When testing indicates the pet food meets the nutrient profile:

The pet food must contain every nutrient that we know the pet needs as specified in the AAFCO Dog Food (or Cat Food) Nutrient Profiles. The nutrients listed in the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles are based on the nutritional recommendations of the National Research Council (NRC) for dogs and cats. The NRC recommendations are based upon the nutritional needs of the pet using purified diets. AAFCO has translated these absolute dietary needs of the pet into the nutrients and levels that should be in pet FOOD.


AAFCO's Nutrient Profiles are broken down into two categories (or life stages) - Growth & Reproduction and Adult Maintenance. If the pet food meets all of the nutrient requirements of both Growth & Reproduction AND Adult Maintenance as listed in the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles, then that pet food would be considered to be nutritionally adequate for "all life stages."


If the pet food meets the nutrient requirements of the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles, the label must bear the following statement:


"(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for ________." (Blank is to be completed by using the stage or stages of the pet's life such as gestation, lactation, growth, maintenance, or the words "All Life Stages.")


When feeding trials were run on the pet food:

The second option is for the pet food to pass an animal feeding trial using procedures developed by AAFCO in the AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Feeding Protocols. The AAFCO Protocols mandate factors such as the length of the trial, the number of animals, the feeding procedures and the diagnostic tests which determine if the feeding trial was successful. For products that pass an animal feeding trial using the AAFCO Feeding Protocols, the label must bear the following statement:


"Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (product name) provides complete and balanced nutrition for _________." (Blank is to be completed by using the stage or stages of the pet's life tested such as gestation, lactation, growth, maintenance or the words "All Life Stages".)

Source: AAFCO



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How does "nutrient profile" translate into availability of nutrient? Sometimes, what seems to be "present" is not necessarily what is biologically "available" to the consuming individual. I wonder if this takes this into account?

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Dr. Freeman is a wonderful teacher. It is well worth attending any of her lectures if you can.


How does "nutrient profile" translate into availability of nutrient? Sometimes, what seems to be "present" is not necessarily what is biologically "available" to the consuming individual. I wonder if this takes this into account?


The foods that have been "formulated to meet AAFCO profiles" have ingredients added that in theory should provided the required nutrients. No proof of bioavailability is provided.


When foods undergo feeding trials, the dogs are tested to see if they have any evidence of deficiency. This should reveal whether or not those added nutrients are bioavailable. The best feeding trials follow dogs long term (life long is best).

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